Italy’s colorful and controversial former prime minister, media mogul and convicted criminal, Silvio Berlusconi, who has been sentenced to a four-year prison term by the high court over a number of offenses, said his center-right Il Popolo della Libertà (People of Freedom), or PDL, party will continue to support the fragile coalition government of Enrico Letta. Ironically, Letta is deputy secretary-general of the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), or PD, a center-left party that can ultimately trace its ancestry to Italian Communists – one of Berlusconi’s biggest obsessions and perceived enemies.

One of the hallmarks of Berlusconi’s lengthy and turbulent political and business career has been his strong distaste for Italy’s once-powerful Communist Party. Berlusconi, seeking to appeal to his conservative base, has long accused his leftist opponents, the mainstream media and even judges and prosecutors of either being Communists or sympathizing with Marxism. For example, in January 2005, he warned to the Corriere della Sera newspaper: “If the left wing was to rule, the result would be misery, terror and death, like it happens in every place where communism rules.” During a television appearance in October 2009, Berlusconi angrily declared, referring to himself in the third person: “The real Italian anomaly is not Silvio Berlusconi but Communist prosecutors and Communist judges in Milan who have attacked him again and again since he entered politics.”

While Berlusconi’s anti-Communist tirades sound ludicrous to contemporary ears given the global decline of Marxism since the fall of the Soviet Union, it should be noted that Communists once held sway over a large swath of the Italian public. Indeed, the Communist Party of Italy was the largest and most successful political organization of its kind in the Western world at one time.

International Business Times spoke with an expert on Italian politics to discuss the history of Italian communism and how close the party came to actually acquiring control in the country.

Michael R. Ebner is associate professor of history at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University, and author of “Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy” (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[Click here to read another analysis of Italy’s Communist party by an Italian academic.]

IBTIMES: Partito Comunista d'Italia (PCdI) – the Communist Party of Italy – was founded in January 1921 after a split with the Partito Socialista Italiano (Italian Socialist Party), or PSI. What caused that rupture?

EBNER: The formation of the Soviet Union, the creation of the Third International, or Comintern, led to the creation of Communist parties throughout Western Europe. Some members of the Socialist parties chose to break away, form the Communist Party, and affiliate themselves with the Comintern in Moscow.

IBTIMES: Was PCdI controlled by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Moscow-based Comintern?

EBNER: The Italian Communist Party belonged to the Third International, as did all other European Communist parties. Under Lenin, and particularly under his successor Joseph Stalin, matters of doctrine, strategy and so forth were dictated by Moscow (Lenin/Stalin). Nevertheless, the PCdI had its own leaders, central committee and so forth.

IBTIMES: The PCdI was outlawed and dissolved by Benito Mussolini in November 1926. During the 1921-1926 period, did the Communists gain much popularity in Italy? Did the Fascists see them as a grave threat to their power?

EBNER: During that period, both the Socialist and Communist parties were suppressed -- and members were persecuted. Neither party became "popular" during this period because this was a period of repression and decline.

The Socialist Party had become hugely influential in the decades leading up to Fascism, but the Fascists destroyed the Socialist Party and its labor movement.

The Communist Party was smaller, but more resilient – indeed, the PCdI operated the only clandestine party in Italy after 1926.

The Mussolini regime really viewed the Communists as a threat, and the secret police -- Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Repressione dell'Antifascismo (Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism) or OVRA -- devoted a great deal of resources to destroying the clandestine PCdI movement. After about 1930, the PCdI in Italy was basically inactive. All of its members were either in jail, in penal colonies, or abroad, in places like France and the USSR.

IBTIMES: In 1943, in the middle of the war, the Communists re-emerged in Italy and changed their name to Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party), or PCI. How did they reappear again after 17 years of illegality? Did they exist and operate underground during all those years?

EBNER: The Communists’ clandestine structure was more or less inactive, but it existed in some form or another. Communists who ceased activity in the 1930s re-emerged and joined up with former comrades, etc. The place where the Communists really survived was in the prisons and penal colonies. Many of them spent the dictatorship under Fascist custody, and they formed strong bonds with one another. Additionally, some of the membership and leadership were abroad and passed back into Italy during the resistance. Finally, all of the Spanish Civil War volunteers (that is, Communists) were pushed out of Spain, put in concentration camps in France, and then deported back to Italy under the Vichy regime.

Mussolini put these former fighters for the Spanish Republic (again, many of them Communists) in jail or in penal colonies. When Mussolini’s regime fell in July 1943, or shortly thereafter, most of these people were freed, and went on to lead or join the resistance.

IBTIMES: What role did Italian Communists play in the resistance during the war?

EBNER: They played a major role in organizing resistance -- a dominant role. There were other political groups who organized resistance, but the largest and best organized were the Communists.

IBTIMES: How did PCI’s policies differ from that of the old PCdI? Was (the new) PCI more independent of Moscow?

EBNER: You might be attributing too much significance to the name change. It just changed from Partito Comunista d'Italia to Parito Communista Italiano, a slight difference.

But by then the situation was very different. During the Fascist dictatorship, the PCdI was utterly dependent on Moscow for support. They were a party comprising men and women who were without a country, really. After the dictatorship fell, they were a legal party in Italy, and could act freely. Still, the connection to Moscow continued in Italy, as it did most places (except Yugoslavia, for example). The leader of the Italian Communist party, Palmiro Togliatti, spent the entire period of the Mussolini dictatorship in Moscow, as a member of the Comintern.

After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the link began to break down a bit between the PCI and Moscow. But they didn't formally part ways until the 1980s.

IBTIMES: After the war, PCI had some 2.3 million members (its peak) and became the largest left-wing party in Italy. Where did the support principally come from? The working class? The unions? Did they enjoy support across all geographic regions, or was it concentrated in one area?

EBNER: They had strong working class support, much more in the industrialized north than in the more rural south. They also had a very strong following in the provinces of north-central Italy, like Emilia-Romagna, and cities like Bologna.

IBTIMES: In the general election of 1948, the PCI allied itself with the Socialists, but were defeated by the conservative Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats), or DC party. How much support did the PCI receive in that election?

EBNER: Well, they formed a coalition with the Socialists – they won about 30 percent of the vote, I believe.

IBTIMES: Reports have since circulated that the DC conspired with the American intelligence network, the CIA, and even the Sicilian Mafia to defeat the Communists in the 1948 elections. Are these allegations true?

EBNER: The United States was enormously concerned about the specter of Communism in Italy and influenced the 1948 Italian elections. The U.S. poured in hundreds of millions of dollars in aid (somewhat separate from the Marshall Plan, which had not really commenced yet).

The U.S. ambassador to Italy, James Dunn, gave speeches up and down the Italian peninsula making it clear that the aid came from the “Free World” and that the DC government was supported by the U.S. Finally, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall formally announced that all aid to Italy would cease if the Communists won the election.

In addition, American cultural entities (Hollywood, Catholic priests, etc.) were very involved in the Italian election. The U.S. military, presumably with the assistance of the CIA, even drew up plans to intervene in Italy should the Communists win.

All of this was considered a bit extreme or heavy-handed, since both Moscow and the PCI had absolutely renounced any idea of a Communist revolution in Italy. Indeed, the PCI had been a responsible member of the governing coalition up to 1946-47, when DC founder and Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi expelled the party from the government.

As for the Mafia, I’m not sure of their involvement. The areas where the Mafia were prominent (the south and Sicily) voted for DC anyway. With or without the Mafia, this would have been the case.

IBTIMES: In the post-war period, did the Communists continue to enjoy significant support? Did they ever formally join a coalition government?

EBNER: Yes, the Communist Party remained very strong -- usually as the second-biggest party in Italy. They never formally joined a coalition, but did occasionally support -- or at least agree not to obstruct-- the Christian Democrats.

IBTIMES: Did Communists ever control any local or provincial governments? If so, where and when during the post-war era?

EBNER: Yes, there were entire regions of Italy that were considered "red" (like Emilia-Romagna), where PCI candidates held all sorts of regional and municipal posts. Bologna was for a very long time a "red city" completely controlled by a Communist government. These Communists actually developed a reputation for very efficient and uncorrupt governance in these places. But again, these were mainly in north-central Italy.

IBTIMES: Did the Russians view Italy as a key locale for its global Communist revolution?

EBNER: In any real sense, no. Moscow supported the Western European Communist parties, but under agreements reached near the end of World War II (between Winston Churchill and Stalin especially) Italy, France, and other nations in the West would remain democratic and capitalist.

Stalin was actually quite “conservative” in many ways, and had no interest, I don't think, in “scaring” the West. The PCI was always told to play along with parliamentary politics and be loyal to the Italian Republic.

Now, obviously, the long-term goals for the Soviet Union focused on worldwide revolution, Italy included. But Italy was never going to be the next Hungary or Czechoslovakia. The USSR was not interested in that level of confrontation in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It just wasn't possible, and Moscow knew it.

Still, one can see why many people in Italy, the U.S., and elsewhere, feared the Communists winning an election. The association with Stalin and Moscow frightened many. The PCI might not have been planning on establishing a Stalinist regime in Italy, but many people believed that it would.

IBTIMES: Why did PCI break with Moscow in early 1980s?

EBNER: The PCI, many people believe, remained tied to Moscow for far too long. The year 1956 was a watershed in this sense. In the beginning of that year, in his "secret speech," Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev revealed Stalin's crimes and denounced the cult of personality. These admissions sent shockwaves throughout Italy, Western Europe and the world. The PCI leader, Togliatti, tried to limit the damage in some ways; for instance, asking Moscow for further clarification as to what people like Khrushchev were doing during the Stalinist terror. The undeniable fact, however, is that Togliatti was vice secretary of the Comintern during the 1930s. He must have known about Stalin’s excesses, and in a sense been complicit in the crimes and cult of personality of Stalin's regime. Then came the revolts against Communist rule in Poland and Hungary. When Moscow sent tanks into Budapest, Togliatti and the rest of the leadership fully supported the Red Army against the workers and reformists in Poland and Hungary. By unequivocally supporting Moscow throughout 1956 and beyond, then, the PCI destroyed some of the moral authority it had garnered through its leadership in the resistance to Fascism. Indeed, the events of 1956 fractured the left in Italy. The unions turned against Moscow, and many Communists denounced Stalin and Khrushchev's intervention in Hungary. These dissenting voices were ultimately expelled from the party, and hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file members left the PCI. The stain of Stalinism -- authoritarianism, crimes, anti-democracy -- would continue to hang over the PCI and Togliatti's legacy.

IBTIMES: By the early 1970s, a man named Enrico Berlinguer took over PCI. What did he do with respect to Moscow?

EBNER: Under Berlinguer, the PCI moved toward "Euro-Communism" (more open, more democratic, more independent from Moscow, seeking an Italian path to socialism), and away from the USSR. Holding fast to Moscow, the legacy of Stalinism, and aspirations for the dictatorship of the proletariat were just not realities for the PCI anymore. The PCI had to change. We also can't forget the Soviets crushing the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Finally, the Soviet model -- heavy industry, collectivized agriculture, authoritarianism, etc. -- had broken down in the 1970s. Anyone looking at the USSR, Poland, or even East Germany, could see that the Soviet model was obsolete and no longer worth emulating. The break from Moscow, then, was about the PCI embarking on completely Italian road to socialism, hopefully without the baggage of Stalinism, though the opponents of the PCI, and later the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left), or PDS, never let the public forget the PCI's relationship with Stalin.

IBTIMES: In 1976, PCI received more than one-third (34.4 percent) of the national electorate. Could they have taken power then?

EBNER: If you mean "seize power" like in a coup, no. The PCI was never interested in grabbing power or founding a Communist regime in Italy. They competed in elections, wanted to win positions of importance within local and, if possible, national government. But the point was always to do it within the legal and political framework of the Italian Republic. Obviously, a PCI government would have meant the implementation of socialist policies.

The main impediments to them entering government were the DC and the United Sates – i.e, fear of Communism by the capitalist classes in Italy and the West, and so forth. Also, the PCI came close, but never surpassed the DC as the biggest party.

Interestingly, it was precisely around this time, that the idea of the Communists actually entering Italian government was hatched. The idea was to have the Communists join in a government with the DC in a large coalition. Aldo Moro, the DC leader and prime minister, was interested in pursuing this strategy. But in 1978, a radical Communist terrorist group, the Red Brigades, abducted and ultimately executed him, and with him died any hope for this alliance.

IBTIMES: Did PCI repudiate the Red Brigades’ actions?

EBNER: The PCI had nothing to do with the Red Brigades and did not support them in any way. Quite the opposite really – in fact, the Red Brigades were against the PCI in many ways.

IBTIMES: In January 1991, PCI dissolved and ultimately evolved into the PDS. Was this a direct response to the fall of the Soviet Union? How did PDS differ in policy from PCI? Did they adopt a more moderate stance?

EBNER: Yes, but this happened everywhere in Europe, including the Eastern Bloc states. Communism had been discredited after 1989, and no party could credibly offer Marxism-Leninism as its platform. The PCI had already become much more of a social democratic party in the 1980s, and split with the USSR more or less. So, the name was changed as a way of moving on, of discarding an old, stigmatized model.

IBTIMES: Atheism is a core value of Marxism. Did Italy’s Communists share this attitude? Or did they realize that the Catholic Church is too powerful in Italy to ignore or marginalize?

EBNER: Nobody could ignore the power and influence of Catholicism in Italy. And, in fact, there were many shared values between the Catholics and Communists. Moreover, the DC party members were not neo-liberals -- they were, in fact, skeptical of free-market capitalism and its effects on society (as were the Communists, of course).

But, obviously, religion was a big issue. The church always opposed the Communists and campaigned against them.

IBTIMES: Hypothetically, if the Communists had ever taken over Italy, what would have happened to the church in the country and what would have happened with diplomatic relations with other Western countries?

EBNER: This was never a real possibility. The armed resistance, Communist that is, was very big in 1945, and many Communists thought they would try to take over like in Yugoslavia, or in Greece.

But when Togliatti came back to Italy from Moscow he made it very clear to everyone (the PCI, the DC and the Americans) that this was never going to happen. So, from 1947 onward, the idea of the Communists "taking over" and installing some Soviet-like regime was simply not on anyone's radar.

It was not a goal of the PCI, and it would have never been possible, given the presence of NATO.

It might have been a theme in Cold-War anti-Communist propaganda (principally in the U.S.), but Italy was just not Yugoslavia.

If the Communists had come to power in Italy, it would have only been through elections, and the extent of the changes they brought would have been legal. It would still be a parliamentary democracy, in my view, and in the view of most historians.